County sober station goes beyond hangover care

Joe Raedle/Getty ImagesA suspected drunk driver is asked to walk in a straight line as police conduct a field sobriety test on him during a DUI checkpoint.

Police in San Mateo County have a kinder, gentler alternative to the “drunk tank.” The First Chance Sobering Station was designed to be a safe, supportive environment where people arrested for drunk driving or public intoxication can get connected to counseling and resources long before they come before a judge.

Located off Old Bayshore Highway in Burlingame, the sobering station looks just like the nondescript office buildings that surround it. Arrestees are booked into the facility, and its booking room contains breathalyzers and blood-drawing equipment for use by police. That’s where the similarity to a police station or jail ends.

Nobody is locked inside, and clients (as opposed to prisoners) are free to leave whenever they please. The facility contains separate men’s and women’s dorms with diffuse lighting, soothing pastel colors, and beds so people can sleep off their intoxication. There are plenty of snacks available in the kitchen, as well as fresh coffee for clients and cops alike. Most importantly, there are counselors on hand to address each arrestee’s fears and to begin to set the stage for intervention and treatment.

Although First Chance is an alternative to jail, it’s not an alternative to punishment. Clients are still issued citations for their offenses and still have to go through the criminal justice system.

First Chance is run by StarVista, one of the largest nonprofit organizations in the county. Department Director Dr. Clarise Blanchard said the program got started in 1991 after local police chiefs wanted an alternative to holding nonviolent drunk drivers in jail. “Police tell us it’s hard booking some 20-year-old kid, or mom with kids in the car, into jail,” Blanchard said.

Blanchard said the traditional jail route isn’t conducive to getting offenders to change their ways. She said arrestees tend to feel they’ve been treated badly, get angry at the system, and show up for court dates with rebellious attitudes. The director added that within the first year of operation, First Chance began to yield better outcomes, with people being more likely to accept help for their substance abuse issues.

Counselor Gabriella Vega said clients are often scared about what will happen to them next, worrying whether their impounded cars are safe, how they’ll get home, how their families will react, and whether they’ll lose their jobs. She said she doesn’t sugarcoat the situation, but that talking clients through each fear is a crucial first step toward getting them into a frame of mind where they can make better decisions.

When it comes to getting home safely, Blanchard said the sobering center issues bus and taxi vouchers, and is especially careful with female clients. “We try not to release anybody at night,” said Blanchard. “We tell people, just give us until the first light.”

First Chance is partly funded by the county health department, but most of its funding comes out of police department budgets. San Mateo Police Chief Susan Manheimer said that’s a challenge, because local police agencies are struggling with sharp budget cuts. She explained that while county jail stays are paid for by the state, each First Chance booking costs local police about $400.

Manheimer said her organization is exploring options with StarVista, county services, and the Sheriff’s Department, in the hope of finding a more sustainable model.

Daly City Vice Mayor David Canepa, who sits on StarVista’s board of directors, said the program should continue, because it reduces recidivism. “We’re a compassionate society, and we need to rehabilitate these people,” said Canepa. “That doesn’t mean what they’ve done isn’t serious. It is serious. But our goal is to make sure they don’t re-offend.”

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